Thu 13 May 2010
sometimes, if i hold my head right, i like to pretend i can see through time.
i’ve been taking an open, online course in Education Futures these past few weeks. Dave’s one of the instructors, along with the luminous George Siemens. it’s a heady ride. there are 700+ participants, though the majority mostly lurk – but still, the experience is slippery, decentered, enormous and fascinating. it’s free. there are no grades, which is probably good, as i suspect Dave would enjoy nothing more than to give my Lisa Simpson ass a nice flat D for once. what you take out of it is not only what you put in, but what roads you choose to navigate, what conversations you choose to be in, which fellow classmates you choose to engage with. it reminds me of the blogosphere, and this blogging “experience” that is really thousands of separate experiences contextualized by a few common parameters.
education futures isn’t about predictions. it’s about perceiving trends and shifts, conceiving of how they intersect and influence each other to impact humans and behaviour and norms. it’s a semi-informed guessing game, a Gladwellian enterprise based on perceiving what is and reconfiguring the way it’s interpreted, until possibilities open and – maybe – everything looks radically different.
our social media personae are made up of the perspectives we bring to these online skins, these avatars by which we negotiate identities and connections out here, in the virtual.
you know me as a mommyblogger. however awkward that skin is, i cannot say it does not fit. my voice inhabits it, has grown to fill it, has used its maternal contours to speak into being a child whom those who know me only in my physical skin seldom get to see. my motherhood in all its complexities is the platform on which i’m grounded, both in my online and day-to-day lives.
i am also an educator, whose work and thought are predominantly shaped by the contexts of higher education and the online communities centering around educational technologies and theory. i think of education as a social and societal experiment. generally, i think of blogging the same way.
it’s where these two perspectives come together that i catch a teensy whiff of what smells like the future.
in my grand decline, when i look back over mint juleps and maribou slippers to dissect the ‘blogging revolution’ of my long-faded 30s, i think two things will stand out vividly.
first, Virginia Woolf was right.
a room of one’s own matters, and is a condition necessary to creation. what Virginia missed was that the room doesn’t need to be an actual office or garret or physical space, nor does it matter if the would-be writer’s physical space and life are crowded with small bodies. these are fodder, rich and full of marrow.
the chance to narrate said fodder into a room of one’s very own, a virtual shelter for one’s words & stories & a persona beyond the bounds of Barney and chewable books? has mattered. and freed from the gatekeeping and market pressures of traditional publishing systems, the opportunity for parents to build these little birdhouses for their souls has created an explosion. said explosion – and the nature of its particular technologies, which permit an etiquette of commenting and linking and personal advocacy & promotions – have resulted both in an unprecedented meld of brand & identity, and a brave new world in which communities and networks are able to truly transcend space and time.
in the educational futures conversation it’s easy to miss the branding and identities part of the picture, whereas in the parental corner of the blogosphere, sometimes one is left wondering whether there’s really anything else going on at all. as blogs have become increasingly business-focused and the concept of self as brand has become ubiquitous, many of us have learned enough to confidently blather on about SEO optimization and concepts like earned media and how to promote small businesses through social media.
but what particularly interests me is that as our children grow up in families and communities permeated by these concepts of identity and interaction, they’ll bring these implicit understandings of what it means to be a self into their classrooms. and if we are to shape our archaic, industrial-era education system into something relevant to their perspectives on the world and on their futures, we ought to be ensuring that our classrooms enable students to build rooms of their own, and share them, and through them interrogate the assumptions of market, knowledge, and identity that our culture reflects and reifies.
the other thing that i think will leap to the foreground of the picture when we look back at this first decade of blogging through the mists of time: our concepts of privacy are about to be blown wide open.
i love cities. i love to walk in cities. the bigger and more anonymous the better. i pound the pavement and imagine i could be anybody, because all the other anybodies slipping by me could be anybody too, and maybe the most fascinating interaction in the world is about to take place in a glance. cities, for me, are near-infinite networks of possibility, without the glare and responsibility of being known.
anyone who grew up in a small town knows what it is to be known. “cherish your reputation,” my dear mother always told me, by which i – probably unfairly – assumed she meant for me to keep HER reputation intact and unsullied by whispers. when you focus on reputation, you sometimes assume people care more than they actually do. but in a small town, you also know that people can be cruel, and judgements made on the whim of the moment. so you guard yourself…and sometimes, if the weight of public castigation grows too heavy, you become what they already say you are. in a small town, it can be death to be different.
in branding, on the other hand, differentiation is key to success.
i see online identity as a small-town self, acutely aware of the possibility and the consequences of being recognized, meandering about in a truly infinite city of networked relationships. this branded self is at least semi-consciously aware of its goals and its optics; of how it appears to the anybodies passing by the artifacts and traces of itself it shares out here in the ether. the branded self may view connections as personal or instrumental, or both, and is probably inclined to see attention as positive so long as its network doesn’t ostracize it as a result.
in other words, to a branded self, there is no purpose in privacy. all the world’s a stage.
in the four years or so i’ve been reading blogs, one of the most common refrains i’ve heard is “i’m taking down photos/names/poop stories because i don’t want the record i’ve created here to follow my child through life.” wisely, i think, we recognize that in writing of our children, we risk writing them into roles that they themselves may not want to embody. we don’t want them to feel they have to become what we’ve said they are. or at least, we don’t want to appear that way.
but in the post-blogging world of tomorrow, it is almost unthinkable that our kids won’t have online identities far beyond what we’ve written for them. what’s more, i don’t think our concepts of negative attention will have a great deal of meaning to our kids’ generation as they grow into adults, except in those awful, inevitable, pan-human moments where the network – be it the football team or cranky bloggers or politicians and half of twitter – blows up against a particular self in moments of bullying and ostracism and brand-backlash writ large. it’s not likely to happen over potty tales; they’re too universal.
the dance of successful branding is about balancing the creative capacity for difference with the critical capacities for self-judgement and prudent projection of consequences.
our children’s online selves will fluctuate and change as they grow, but teaching them early to leave trails they won’t be dogged by or ashamed of later – because nothing online is truly private, or really goes away – has to be one of the challenges of raising this generation of children for which we’re least prepared. as a culture, i think we’d all benefit from work on critical projection, since more and more of us seem to have no intention of going back under the dome of domestic privacy. and as an educator within this culture, i wonder if one of the greatest conceptual tools we could give kids today would be that sense of big-city network navigation in a small-town, self-aware skin?
then they could build rooms of their own within which to capture their own realities and perspectives, and there hopefully weather storms if/as they arose, all the while understanding in a way our generation is only beginning to taste that no network – no matter how powerful the popular girls seem when one is in junior high, or a mommyblogger – is ever finite, be-all and end-all.
what do YOU see when you look through time? and how do YOU see your online persona? are you a small-town brand or a citified network person by nature? or am i missing something beyond/between that polarization?